Digital Digest with Julie Rowe – Agency vs. Corporate

By: Jessica and Gemma 30 Oct, 2017

This month’s Digital Digest is with the incredible Julie Rowe. She is the General Manager – Digital Communication Services within Digital Transformation for Fonterra. With a broad range of work experience from leading Touchcast Auckland – a digital agency to Propellerhead – a technology solutions consultancy as well as non-profit organisations, being an independent freelancer and co founder of a couple of start ups. Yes ladies, take note – she is the ultimate boss lady!! In this blog piece, she details the differences from working in a agency and in a corporate while also touching on her career progression, inspiration and muses. Grab a brew and happy reading 🙂


Looking at your experience, you’ve had a wide range of experience in the digital industry. Notably, working in both Agencies and Corporates as well as dabbling in tech/software. What would you say in your experience is the biggest difference and crossover when positioning yourself for each when looking to transition from Agency into Corporate or Corporate into Agency?

Agency to corporate:

Difference: In agency, you have a whole network of specialists beside you and you’ve won (hopefully!) the work with your client based on your ability to deliver high quality solutions that will drive ROI – so naturally, you get used to seeing what good looks like most of the time as you’re only as good as your last job.

In corporate, there’s so much more variance. I really struggled with that initially and found myself being very critical of what had happened in the past which isn’t productive at all and in hindsight a little naïve. As such, I think it’s important when positioning yourself to ensure you acknowledge that you’re most likely going into the role to also help demonstrate and educate what good looks like (and that’s probably one of the reasons they’re likely to want you!) – and you have to balance idealism with pragmatism and empathy.

Crossover: I think it’s still important to demonstrate that you have experience being a practitioner, are a self starter and can roll your sleeves up, even if you’re a generalist like myself – and be clear around where your competency lies. If you’ve never got your hands dirty (or aren’t willing to), you can run the risk of being too theoretical which doesn’t consider the practical nuances of a business such as digital maturity, capability etc. I think this is actually a key reason why corporates are making more and more ex agency hires. The era of transitioning to corporate for the luxury of relaxed internal timelines or to be less accountable and still get a decent paycheck is over. To make a difference, you need to be capable of demonstrating what good looks like (and have the credibility to do so), and be able to reliably inform decision making. In short, don’t make your cv look like it’s mostly focussed on management or process – there’s enough people like that in big corporates. They need capable digital practitioners who can drive change quickly.

Corporate to agency:

Difference: I personally think this transition can often be harder – and I’ve observed this a few times where it simply hasn’t worked and the person has gone back client side. I think the cause of this is mostly due to the difference in pace, and the way that funding works on both sides. On agency side, you need to get projects done and dusted so you can move onto the next one to keep the revenue coming in. On client side, there’s a different pressure where you work to yearly timeframes, you plan how much money you need during the previous financial year and then you might still have to go through business case processes and a bunch of ticking boxes and keeping the right people happy before you can even access that funding and get started. Most big businesses are trying to change this as remaining relevant requires the ability to be much more responsive, focus on people rather than process, and be single-mindedly customer focussed – and for the very large corporates, I think only a small percentage of the more progressive ones can really match the pace and agility that you experience as an employee when working in agency.

Crossover: A real benefit of coming from corporate before transitioning to agency is that you will have respect for what the client has gone through to get to briefing stage so I think having that awareness is really important. Next time I’m agency side, I’ll have much more empathy and understanding of why some requirements won’t always make sense and will probably go about challenging them in a much more constructive way.


In your professional career, at what point in a role do you decide you want to take the next step? Internally or Externally of your current organisation, talk us through your process.

In terms of career progression – I’m not interested in climbing ladders and I’ve never planned for my next role, I’m more interested in doing stimulating work and making things better. I don’t see any hierarchy or structure in my career progress to date. I think hierarchy is dated, it should be more about the value that you contribute. In terms of when I decide to go somewhere else or do something different, it’s really simple. If I wake up and feel I am struggling to add value and don’t feel good about it, then I’ll bow out. I’ve never had a new job lined up before resigning because I’m that impatient. Life is short.


You are also co-founder of weather2work software. Talk us through your start up process and how you got this off the ground as well as where it’s at now?

This was a collaboration with a very close friend. Don’t do a startup with close friends if you’ve never worked together (we are still friends btw, it was a lesson for the both of us!). I also started up a kids homeware brand ( more recently when I was on maternity leave with another new mum (Sophie Rhodes). It was a great hobby whilst away from my normal line of work and I learnt a lot about creating a brand from the ground up with minimal resources – not to mention the production process, textiles, design, wholesaling etc. Whilst we were predominantly focused on eCommerce, we were picked up by physical retailers in the USA, Australia, Canada and NZ. I would approach it completely differently the next time around and am currently trying to figure out whether we continue treating it like a project business or completely shelve it. It takes a lot of focus and effort to run a small business on top of the day job and managing a toddler!


Being involved in non-for-profit organisations such as Kiwispace Foundation and Space General Advisory Council – how would you say this has added value to your professional work experience?

It’s given me a lot of experience solving problems with limited resource. It’s also taught me how to be bold and just ‘ask’ for help or think outside the square and make things happen. I think it’s here that I really learnt that ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’. SGAC was enlightening as it offered an experience that at the time I would never have had access to in NZ. Before joining, I never even knew there was such thing as the ‘Office for Outer Space Affairs’ within the IAEA at the United Nations! I worked with some incredibly smart people who have gone on to do amazing world changing work and they were very inspiring. In terms of my professional work experience personally, I think it’s helped me understand that I don’t need to conform to other people’s expectations or seek anyone else’s permission in regards to what I should be doing professionally.


What’s your WHY? What lights you up! How does this align with what you’re doing now within work and/or outside of work?

My WHY is simply making things better than they were before. Whether it’s through CX, testing new business models, new organisational structures… I think my strengths are in analysing and calculating risk quickly and driving informed decision making so we can achieve the best possible outcome swiftly. Basically – solving problems and just making things happen. I’m like this at home as well and it can drive my partner James crazy as one moment we’ll be talking about something and before he can even blink, it’s already happened. The lens I personally bring is that any change I effect can’t be for the core benefit of business at the expense of the community or environment so how can I bring those values into my work. Which is one of the reasons I’m at Fonterra currently.


With a helm of digital experience under your belt, what is your biggest achievement to date?

I’m my own worst critic – I don’t think I’ve had my biggest achievement yet.


Who is your icon/ mentor and how would you say they feed into shaping your career?

My obvious one is Elon Musk (ha!) and my slightly left field one is Alejandro Jodorowsky – he’s such a passionate and determined creative genius – he’s my reminder to challenge the status quo and not to worry about what other people think or are doing. Personally, I look up to a lot of my peers / colleagues as well – hearing about their experiences and perspective is so valuable, and I trust their advice and brutal honesty… Carolyn Wong, Will Joyce and Raf Rasile are some I pester quite frequently!


Favourite food?

Well steamed broccoli.


Check out our previous Digital Digest with Cassie Roma here.